The Trouble With iPhone Web Apps

By  |  Wednesday, March 16, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Readability made a bold statement earlier this month by releasing a web app alongside its native news reader for the iPhone. With Apple taking a 30 percent cut of subscription-based services offered through the iOS App Store, the web route allows Readibility to keep all the money for itself and content owners.

But here’s the problem: Web apps on iOS may be plagued with slower speeds and an occasional inability to run offline.

The Register brought these issues to light in a recent report on iOS web apps. The report mostly emphasized the slower speed of these HTML-based apps — reportedly, web apps saved to the iPhone’s home screen don’t use Apple’s brand-new Nitro JavasScript engine — but the bigger issue in my mind is the fragile state of offline support.

Before Apple released iOS 4.2 and iOS 4.3, you could run some web apps offline by installing them to the home screen. Now, the free web game Pie Guy doesn’t work without a connection, and accessing queued Readability articles on an airplane or in a subway tunnel is a shaky prospect.

I asked Readability Chief Technical Officer Chris Dary what was going on. Offline caching, he said, does work for Readability in iOS 4.2 and 4.3, but “it’s just extraordinarily finicky.” Some users may have to clear their browser cache and restart their phones to make the feature work. This is partly due to bugs on Apple’s end, and partly because the debugging process for offline support is rather cumbersome, he said.

Dary doesn’t think the problems facing iOS web apps are a calculated move on Apple’s part, even if it’s in Apple’s interest to push its own ecosystem instead of the open web.  But he does think Apple has kept web apps on the backburner.

“There’s still a long way to go to make web apps more in line with native Apps in terms of functionality,” Dary said. “I’m not sure what Apple’s goals are there—I’d be glad to see them put more effort into it.”

For the sake of subscription-based apps that can’t make ends meet under Apple’s new policy, I agree.


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2 Comments For This Post

  1. IcyFog Says:

    I've noticed this problem too, and it's a PITA.

  2. Max Fenton Says:

    This is our best suggestion for users facing that blue box:

    1. Delete the Readability icon from your home screen.
    2. Open Settings > Safari and click the Clear Cache button.
    3. Fully quit both Readability and Safari from by:
    a) double-clicking the Home button,
    b) scrolling the list of recent apps until you find Safari or Readability,
    c) tap and hold the app's icon in that multitasking bar for a second or two until it starts to "wiggle" and you see a little minus badge in top left corner of the icon
    d) tap the red minus badge on Safari and then Readability (it doesn't really matter which you do first)
    4. Return to the home screen and open Safari
    5. Visit in Safari and "Add to Home Screen" from the Safari send button.
    6. Return to the home screen and open Readability from the app.
    7. Head back to Settings and turn on Airport mode.
    8. …and back to Readability, where you should now see your Reading List and Archives and be able to read offline.

    If you have any other issues, please use our contact form at:
    —we're glad to help!

    Max Fenton
    Readability Team